Education: The Big Truths

[ 14 mins read ]

Education. What does it all mean? A seemingly important pivot to our society or a mere illusion which we have created for ourselves? Many argue, and rightfully so, that education is undoubtedly significant for society and the individuals who are the beneficiaries of education – the students, the teachers, the parents. Education aims to promote the well-being of children – to provide a place where students feel comfortable when learning and encourage the love of learning. Educational institutions are beacons of excitement to discover the world around us, and ultimately, share time with like-minded individuals.

Glossing through the supposed purposes of education has given me thought on whether they actually materialise into reality. What are the problems which education faces and why do they exist? With a contrarian way of thinking, can we see the problems within education? Are standardised tests just a convenient tool to gain maximum efficiency when marking exams? Is homework needed? Where’s all the passion at? Is there a disconnect between educational institutions and parents? Edtech, what are the consequences? Turning schools into businesses? Are we happy?

It is of relative importance to indeed ponder about issues such as those which education will face going into the future. It is up to us to seek what is meaningful and carry out actions which are right and just. Whether you agree with the perspectives proposed or the comments made here, I aspire to generate discussion and perhaps, make you reflect upon your own initial thoughts.

And as we walk through the 21st century, we have to ask ourselves, are our education systems relevant and keeping up with the evolutions and revolutions which our population faces. With concerns over global teacher shortages to the, still unclear impacts which technology may have upon students and teachers, education is facing challenges – let’s see what we can do to solve these challenges.

 

One size fits all

A standardised education system is most common than not for many children nowadays. As pupils, we are taught the same subjects through similar forms of teaching, with no regards to the unique passions and interests which individuals possess. It gets even worse when it comes to testing and examinations; standardised testing is a method based on convenience and practicality, where the “intelligence” of pupils is tested. For those who succeed through the norm of these examinations, they absorb the credit and praise which their teachers and educational institutions reward them with. For pupils who don’t necessarily excel through this conventional form of testing, they are deemed to lack “intelligence” and are made to feel somewhat inferior. This is wrong and unjust; even though teachers may, as a result of their so-labelled poor performance, give more attention towards these pupils with the sole intent to help them, it still does not explain why we still push this notion that conventional examinations are the best way to measure intelligence.

Standardised exams fail to consider indicators which cannot be measured – passion, creativity and curiosity, to name a few. It is far easier to use a computer to mark thousands of multiple-choice test papers than to give feedback to each pupil, although the latter yields far greater value for the pupils themselves - the individuals who we teach and want to improve as people. Sounds familiar? Similar to an assembly line? Standardised exams are by their nature prone to pupils who attempt to beat the system, developing techniques to pass the “exam game” rather than learning to understand the content put forward to them.

We must look to broadening the way we examine pupils in order to reach out to the untapped potential of young minds. No one pupil is great at everything, but every pupil is great at something. Understanding what pupils are passionate about or love doing, can help policymakers better implement methods to rightfully examine pupils. It is by no means lesser to test an individual’s creativity through problem-solving than to test an individual’s ability to memorise. We must shrug off this belief that giving out conventional exams is the only way to test an individual’s capabilities – to shrug off this rule that pupils have to conform to the dogmas created by a system which fails to comprehend the human nature of learning and expanding ones’ skills.

Alternatively, instead of having these conventional examinations which aim to standardise pupils, we could have pupils and students work on solving world problems. Not only does this approach allow pupils to closer understand the complexities but also the beauty of the “real world”, but as individuals, we want to work on things which are meaningful and do matter in the end. Working on solutions which help move society forward by eliminating inequalities which exist or the ability to appreciate the diversity of thought which will inevitably emerge from pupils collectively working together. This can be done by allowing pupils to learn the skills gained from subjects through the humanities, arts and sciences, and allowing time for pupils to reflect upon which skills are needed to tackle world problems. In most occasions, the naivety of younger people can help to challenge the assumptions and norms which persist in the world today – without these new minds and fresh perspectives, will we continue to use the same way of thinking which has manifested into the many problems we see in today’s society.

“I think you also have to and talk to people who are not at college levels; you have to talk to high school kids and grade school kids.” – Rainer Weiss

 

Unnecessary Information Overload

It is surely bewildering that in a society where information is so easily accessible that pupils are still subject to the excess of information received from teachers. Pupils do not need more information but instead guidance to allow them to judge information which is regarded as relevant and useful from information which is false, such as fake news. Helping pupils to develop skills which best prepare these individuals into the rather uncertain and unpredictable world, is a more fruitful use of time – skills such as communication and inventiveness.

As mentioned before, it is however very difficult both in terms of resources and the magnitude of change needed to switch from education systems which advocate information diffusion to skills-based teaching. Pupils do, and rightfully so, question whether the information they are told to absorb, will be useful in their years to come – subjects which have a strong theoretical frontier and seemingly having little practical use for pupils are further vulnerable to the question of real-life utility.

We need to teach our children how knowledge and information can be indeed useful or bear value. How the application of knowledge can be carried out to solve problems which help other individuals within society. We, as a society, need to decide whether stuffing pupils with information is the best way to educate younger minds; the world is changing faster than ever. Unless the ways of teaching change to one which promotes the importance of skills instead of information, our education systems will become obsolete relative to the pace of change we are seeing in the world.

“Let us choose to let machines be machines, and let humans be humans” – Kai-Fu Lee

 

Home-work

Classwork that really should have been done in school? Seems like a chore for pupils and a burden for teachers, homework has become an activity pupils resent and despise. With the purpose to extend and expand upon knowledge pupils have learnt in class, there, of course, exists a rather logical argument for the reason why homework is set. Despite this very foundation which proves the existence of homework, this bears the question of whether homework leads to an opportunity cost which would otherwise allow pupils to go off and explore the world around them, further broadening their experiences in their early life.

Just the process of doing homework itself results in one being isolated and away from friends and family. Could this be a factor in determining why face-to-face interaction with others may have decreased, with people resorting to social media as a far more convenient way to connect with others whom you know? Consequently, the detrimental effects associated with social media usage also come to fruition. With the constant flows of homework which pupils find themselves catching up on, it can be said that homework itself inhibits younger people to be more curious about the world around them and develop passions that may prove vital in their future years.

In a situation where homework is indeed set, it is the teacher’s role to convince pupils that the activity is one of importance and value. If such is not achieved, pupils will lose engagement of the subject and instead churn out something just out of necessity. Allow time and give pupils the freedom to explore – this is an approach which will result in great work, not work which is rushed. Ultimately, it is better off to encourage young individuals to chase their passions and discover what really stirs their imaginations.

“…the fact is that most of us here loved what we did and so that carries you through failures and you have to really like doing experiments.” – Michael Rosbash

 

Passion

Do all pupils and all teachers get a kick out of going to school? I have always thought that people should be acknowledged for the passions they have, and the unique interests they choose to pursue rather than the grades they achieve. Our curriculums act as lists, with topics ready to be checked off. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that people with passion can change the world for the better. Enabling pupils to explore a broad range of experiences means that they are best exposed to discovering what really drives them and energises them.

A fundamental principle to stand by is to work on things which thrill you and you find a pleasure to do. It is not to abide by a set of academic walls which dictate what pupils do, with very little freedom to deviate, but to nurture the inner passions individuals will develop over time. Education was not set up to spoon-feed knowledge, needless and of no use in some instances, but to develop the potential of young minds. It applies to teachers too – the role of a teacher is not merely to transfer information from their brains into other brains through PowerPoints and notes (a book can do this faster for some pupils). The role of the teacher is to excite, to pose questions which pupils are fascinated by, and ultimately, use their sheer love and enthusiasm for their subject, into captivating pupils’ minds.

On a broader note, passion is absolutely fundamental in a world with growing shifts in technology and AI. The power and capabilities of AI mean that things which human beings used to do out of necessity such as administrative work and repetitive tasks will indeed be replaced by AI. This thus leaves human beings the ability to work on things which they love to do out of passion. We don’t know yet if AI will ever possess consciousness and thus passion as a characteristic, but we know with certainty that people with passion (without harming other individuals) have always changed the world for the better. If all humans are passionate about the things they do during their lives, we can certainly hope for a better society. This starts with education systems which stimulate nurturing passions.

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” – Steve Jobs

 

Edtech and its problems

Edtech solutions are supposed to solve problems – that’s why they exist but have we ever thought if they curate unintended consequences? With billions invested into so-called edtech companies, every edtech firm is attempting to promote their new “revolutionary” product for students, teachers or whoever they end up “selling” their product too. The education/edtech industry is really difficult to be in and it is simply ignorant in nature to think that just because one went through the education system, they are somehow justified to set up their own edtech business proposing to solve a problem which may not be needed or exist in the first place.

In the long run, education will face even problematic issues considering the approach which edtech companies take when selling their products to school. The word “selling” is the key term here – an economic transaction which is dependent on the school having the financial will to do so is required. In most cases, especially with high pressures upon school budgets, schools lack the necessary capital to even think of buying solutions which are marketed to them. Edtech companies will then move to where the money is – it seems only logical to do so. Where an edtech product statistically improves the lives of pupils or teachers, does this not present the question – are only those with the capital available entitled to purchase solutions which may improve educational attainment? You see where this one is heading.

Founders must think carefully about entering the edtech industry or face spending time, fixated on a wrong solution. Founders must establish that their solutions are for pupils – not teachers nor administrators. Even tools which free up teachers’ time will inevitably result in teachers spending more time with pupils – thus, the pupils benefit from this in the end. Like any other industry, new solutions in edtech must be so much better than existing solutions, in order for them to stand out among the countless and ubiquitous solutions out there.

Many edtech companies focus on solving problems which they know they can measure. Of course, it seems only logical to have statistics to prove teachers and students that a product works. However, they forget the human aspect of education; aspects which can’t be easily measured such as creativity or how students behave in different environments. In order to better education, we must first better the individual by creating approachable products which consider human nature and are truly a delight to use. And of course, make individuals happy. That’s the whole point of innovation in the end. Happy people, happy world. Technology can never be pushed. It is essential that edtech products are shaped to the needs of individuals, and that requires a deep understanding of human nature – what individuals want, their dreams, their hopes and their ambitions.

“When you’re putting people on the moon, you’re inspiring all of us to achieve the maximum of human potential, which is how our greatest problems will eventually be solved. Give yourself permission to dream. Fuel your kids’ dreams too.” – Randy Pausch

 

Because we all matter

Education can be an amazing medium for individuals to find what it is they love, contribute to the world and ultimately, move society forward. However, we need to shrug off this notion that the education systems around the world do not have problems. Inertia and denial cannot help us in creating an education which considers the uniqueness and sheer brilliance of each and every individual. We have to acknowledge problems such as current education systems creating greater social inequalities to switching our mindsets away from the viewpoint that education is just about academics.

Imagine a world where education is based on passions. Where individuals are taught skills such as critical thinking and empathetic understanding, values of respect and care, an educational system which does not discriminate or exclude. It’s time we change how we perceive education to be.  

to be continued…

 

I would love to hear your comments and views about the issues raised above!

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Author Henry Hemming discusses his experiences as a writer

Henry Hemming Edzuki.jpg

Henry Hemming has published five works including titles from Agent M to The Ingenious Mr Pyke, a New York Times bestseller. Also a prominent writer on major outlets including The Economist, The Times and FT Magazine, his passion for history grew whilst studying History at Newcastle University. He has kindly given us the opportunity to interview him about his career, advice for aspiring history and English students and to share his experiences. 

The Interview

1 | What is your daily routine as an author?

My routine as an author is dictated not by the mood I’m in or if I’m feeling inspired but by childcare. As soon as I’ve dropped off our daughter at pre-school, or our son at nursery (my wife and I take it in turns), I’ll know that I have until later that afternoon to write, and that’s it. I do like a deadline. I’ll either head off to the National Archives to go through primary sources, or the British Library for memoirs and secondary sources, I might work in a local café or I’m based at home. One advantage of being at home is that you can read sections of your book out loud, which I find enormously helpful. I’ve always tried to think of a book as the transcript of a (very long) talk. So when I was asked to go to a studio to record the audiobook of ‘M’, for my most recent book, I found that I could almost recite the whole thing by heart. Another part of my daily routine, or a tool, really, for when I get stuck, is taking a walk. I find that there aren’t many writing problems that can’t be solved with a half-hour walk round our local common.

2 | From writing on many well-known news/media companies to publishing five works, you have already achieved so much. Looking back, what influenced you in choosing to become an author?

It’s probably best to talk about what got me going on my first book, which is where my career as an author began. It was a combination of two things: having a good story to tell, and a clear sense of how I wanted to see it told. I’d been on a journey through the Middle East, making and selling paintings in places like Tehran, Muscat and Baghdad. Although my paintings told some of the story, I knew that the best way to communicate what had happened, because it was so completely unlike anything which had happened to me before, would be to write it all down. I’d read many travel books, and had even written my own very short travel book at university (which was and remains unreadable), yet by the time I got back from the Middle East I had a new sense of how I wanted this book to sound, the rhythm of the language and the feel of it all. Even then, it took three years of working on this manuscript in my spare time, endlessly rewriting and redrafting, before it was taken on by a literary agent.

Churchill's Iceman tells the true story of Geoffrey Pyke.   “His was not a lucky life but, in his biographer, he has gained a little bit of posthumous luck. This admirable and thoroughly enjoyable book should rescue a weirdly original and innovative talent from oblivion.”    NICK RENNISON     THE SUNDAY TIMES

Churchill's Iceman tells the true story of Geoffrey Pyke. 

“His was not a lucky life but, in his biographer, he has gained a little bit of posthumous luck. This admirable and thoroughly enjoyable book should rescue a weirdly original and innovative talent from oblivion.”

NICK RENNISON THE SUNDAY TIMES

3 | What do you love most about being a writer and what are some aspects you don't particularly like?

What do I love? Being in charge.

Some aspects I don’t particularly like? Being in charge. There are times when it would be good to have someone else take over for a moment.

4 | Most of your works are based on historical figures. Where did your passion for historical writing originate from?

It comes from a love of detective work, and a desire to understand the world. The best way to do that, I’d argue, is by looking at the past.

5 | Who are some of your favourite authors and books you would highly recommend?

I’m a great fan of Ben Macintyre, and would highly recommend ‘Agent ZigZag’. I’m also a dedicated reader of John le Carré. ‘A Perfect Spy’ remains one of my favourite books.

6 | What is some advice for young and upcoming writers who are thinking about an English-based course at university or about to start their first work?

Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster |    ‘Excellent… Fluently written and highly entertaining’    MAX HASTINGS   THE SUNDAY TIMES

Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster | 

‘Excellent… Fluently written and highly entertaining’

MAX HASTINGS
THE SUNDAY TIMES

I heard Will Self being asked this question, and his advice to the young and upcoming writer was: don’t do it. He went on to say that anyone who is genuinely interested in writing would not be put off by that. I’d go along with that. There’s not much point setting out to write a book unless you feel passionately that you have something you want to say and, ideally, an original way of saying it. The only other advice I’d offer is not to think of yourself only as a writer, but also an editor. I spend much more of my time going through texts I’ve written – re-reading, polishing, tweaking, re-reading again, reading it out loud, polishing some more – so that the act of writing it down in the first place can often feel pretty distant.

7 | Turning back time, what do you wish you had learnt when you were young which would be useful now?

I’d always imagined that once you got your first book published that was it, in the sense that you became a writer for life, you were safe and accepted within the literary citadel. The reality is that each new book needs to be sold in its own right. Also, there’s an element of luck involved with every work. Publishing is a hit industry, and there’s no way of being able to guarantee which books will ‘break out’. I learnt early on to let go of the idea that there was a point I would reach in my career when everything was perfect – incredible sales, amazing reviews, a publisher committed to publishing my next ten books. Instead it’s enormously important, cloying and predictable as this may sound, to enjoy the ride, without really knowing where it might take you.

End of Interview

Get in touch with Henry | Henry Hemming

View reviews and descriptions of his works | Works by Henry Hemming

From Journalist to Podcast Producer | Jessica Glazer discusses her experience within the Journalism Industry

Jessica Glazer on the Journalism Industry | Photo credit to Abby Ronner

Jessica Glazer on the Journalism Industry | Photo credit to Abby Ronner

The journalism industry is ever-growing and changing quickly. With less support from institutions, those working in the media industry are concerned about the balance between working hard, engaging in personal branding and the idea of being an entrepreneur. Many who are involved in media know that it is a very competitive industry to be part of, with the enlarging size of social media platforms dwarfing traditional news companies and also, blogging being a new prospect for the future. 

However, we can always be certain on the fact that journalism will be a significant part of our lives in the future. Our ability to access new information and ideas, brought by well-written and compelling sources, truly is a remarkable example of the opportunities which journalism can provide. Having worked in journalism from covering news on NBC to building ReportHers, Jessica Glazer is now a podcast producer for Fusion Media. Here, Jessica uncovers her advice for aspiring journalists and discusses her experiences when working in the journalism industry. 

The Interview

1 | What do you do as a journalist daily?

I have a new position as a podcast producer for Fusion Media. Each day is different. I am working on developing a few narrative podcast series right now, so my job is part reporter, part coordinator, and part editorial. As reporter, I research and pitch story ideas for episodes or series, and I go out to do field production. As coordinator, I book and record interviews in the studio, send out tape for transcription, make sure people we hire send in invoices for their work and keep files organized (audio, transcriptions, notes, scripts). And for the editorial part, I help make decisions from a higher level about how to structure series and episodes, what to include and cut out. 

I have had jobs in journalism that have looked very different than this one. For example, I worked as an education reporter for a small startup where I was reporting and writing every day, including producing videos from start to finish. In another position a few years ago, I was a multimedia producer at NBC covering breaking news. That meant that whenever any major news event happened, like a terrorist attack, mass shooting, major political news, etc. I was posting and cutting videos and creating interactive graphics on very short deadlines. This was mostly from the office. I helped publish and cut material that came from NBC affiliates and other subscription services like AP Video.  

2 | What made you go into journalism as a career and how did you first start going about being a journalist?

Talk to people, gain advice and never be afraid to ask for help

Talk to people, gain advice and never be afraid to ask for help

I accidentally fell into journalism. My first experience was interning for a local newspaper in the Bronx in New York, called the Norwood News. I learned that I loved going out and talking to people, and discovering new things in the process. I also loved writing and storytelling. Working in journalism has let me explore the world in a way I wouldn’t likely be able to if I had another kind of job. I worked at that internship at the Norwood News throughout college, plus I edited and wrote a column for my college paper.

After college, the economy had crashed and I couldn’t find a job in journalism, so I worked in marketing and freelanced on the side, publishing pieces whenever I could, which was not very frequently. A few years later, I decided to go back to school to learn multimedia skills like video and interactive graphic storytelling. I saw that the field was moving fast towards multimedia skills and I wanted to position myself to get a full time job in journalism. I went to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. A lot of younger journalists starting out will already have a lot of the skills I learned in grad school, which for me acted as a way to help me pivot from one career to another (marketing to journalism). 

3 | How do you approach writing a new story or article? What sort of research and information do you need to obtain?

There are two ways I’d start on a new assignment. Either my editor assigns me something, or I am researching a story to pitch it to my editor. In either case, I first need to know that the story hasn’t already been covered. If it has, I have to justify what my new angle is. Maybe I am writing for a local publication and my angle on a national news story is how it impacts the local community. Or maybe there is an angle that hasn’t been covered yet. Then, I start to read up and identify who I want to talk to. Which experts, which people with a different opinion on the matter, etc. I also want to be able to answer the question “Who cares” or “Why are we writing about this now?” If I can’t answer those questions, it will make my reporting and writing much muddier and maybe the story isn’t even relevant or interesting. I always look for human stories and anecdotes that exemplify the story I’m trying to tell. This gives readers a way in, a way to connect. 

4 | What is your most enjoyable aspect of being a journalist and how does that shape up with some of the least enjoyable aspects?

I love exploring the world, that is why I love journalism. No matter how well you research something or someone, when you actually go out into the world to report something (even if you are just making phone calls from your office) you never actually know what someone will say or what their perspective will be until you ask. You can assume nothing. This makes being in journalism incredibly exciting. I also love technical aspects of journalism, from structuring a written piece to editing audio in Pro Tools. 

5 | What advice would you give for younger journalists or those thinking about journalism as a career?

My advice would be: You have to know how to hustle to be a journalist. This might mean simple problem solving, like figuring out how to find a phone number or how to get an interview with someone. Or it might mean thinking creatively about a new angle that no one else is thinking about. Or being very fast at providing solid, fact-checked information on a tight deadline. Or being able to shift gears when the plan changes last minute. Before you have a lot of skill and experience you can get ahead by being a problem solver and self-starter in your internships and early jobs. This will go a long way throughout your career. Also, don’t plagiarize. Ever. 

6 | With major advances in technology and a greater range of opportunities for journalists to showcase their content, with the likes of not only independent outlets but also platforms such as Medium, where do you see the future of journalism?

How will technology influence journalism?

How will technology influence journalism?

It’s hard to know where the future of journalism will take us. What I do know is that you have to be nimble. And that the industry is small and people know each other, so make and keep friends. Treat people well. This is a competitive field but people help each other as well. Also, learning to pick up a new program or way to tell stories is a useful skill as things evolve. So is being willing to experiment with storytelling. 

7 | ReportHers is a very exciting platform to access interviews and Q&A's from reporters. What made you come up with the idea and where do you see it going?

I came up with the idea with a few classmates for a grad school assignment. I saw that there was a hunger for women’s voices about their experiences in the workforce and in life. I continued it because it provided me a reason to email people I idolize, and a way for me to ask them questions and learn from them. Almost no one has ever said no to being interviewed. I think that’s because I made the process as easy and predictable as possible, made it clear that I had done some research into their work, and showed a genuine interest. You can do this, too, very easily. Pick a website name and a free hosting platform and start conducting interviews. Or pick some other idea that will help you stand out and give you something to talk about in interviews. It doesn’t have to be complicated. As for where I see ReportHers going, I have at different points envisioned a larger website, a podcast, and live events. The truth is, it’s a side project that I don’t have a lot of extra time for so I’ve readjusted my goals to publish a few interviews a year. I’d be happy with that. 

 

Find more about Jessica Glazer here

Follow her on Twitter | Jessica Glazer

The Psychology of Exponential Growth

The Psychology of Exponential Growth Edzuki.jpg

The unseen power of exponential growth

Growth with a rate that becomes even more rapid in proportion to the growing total number or size. Exponential growth. "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." - Albert Allen Bartlett.

What does exponential growth have to do with underestimating people and so you may ask. The ideology that growth is dependent on previous results is evident in the world around us; whether you can see it or find examples of the above statement, the rule can be widely seen.

When you apply for a job or career you wish to obtain, employers look at your experience. If you're applying for a university or college degree, your previous results and achievements are requested. People get an impression of you based on past experiences and events. These examples fit the criteria for the rule of "growth based on previous results".

And it does seem pretty logical and wise that people do regard your past experience in deciding whether you get the job in hand or the university place you are wishing to get. But there is no mention of exponential growth and this is when people are underestimated.

Killing off future potential?

There is a belief that one can tell a lot about a person by their past experiences and as a matter of fact, it is true in some cases. However, there are some exceptions whereby your past does not matter. This is how exponential growth fits in. By convention, people, whether it be your teachers or employers, will base perceptions on who are you by using your previous results. Fair play to them, as this often works to build and discover the potential within people.

But it fails to address undiscovered potential. In conventional education, we are told that you should get the best grades and achieve the best results through vigorous testing and examinations. Through thorough theory learning and schooling, the education system has done its best to separate the "gifted" with the "not so gifted."

And if you are good at this and find yourself achieving the grades you want, we can only congratulate you. But what about those who aren't great at this conventional grade system, yet. After all, great things take a lot of time and patience. What happens in this scenario (most of the time) is that people are led to feel inferior to their counterparts and often disregarded as "low-achieving". Just because you aren't great in written theory, does not mean you won't achieve great things in other fields.

Exponential growth within us

People are given no chance to present and show others their potential due to the fact that people stop them before they even have a chance to do it. I often refer to this as the cut-off point. Although the people judging you cannot see your future growth, exponential growth dictates that you are bound to grow even greater after this cut-off point.

If a scenario such as this occurs where people tell you that you cannot do something which you heavily believe in, do not listen to them. Those are the people who disregard exponential growth too soon and fail to address your will power and determination.

Even though you may not catch sight of it at first, exponential growth is a power law. Many underestimate this law and fail to capture the future growth within people. It is always good to evaluate people based on past experiences and many do, but what is even greater is the belief that someone can achieve greater things in the future, disregard their past.

Does the education system inhibit creativity?

We never question the old ways.

Conventional education... a great base of knowledge and an enriching effect to those who have access to it. It teaches us the norms and values of society, whilst providing us with knowledge useful for latter use in exams, degrees and our future careers. But does education really prevent us from "thinking outside the box"?

Through the years

Teachers provide us with the knowledge we need, to help us understand the subject in hand. Whether it be Chemistry or History or even Geography, we all go through the learning process. Others uptake information faster than others with some taking some time to fully grasp certain concepts. We make notes, draw diagrams and recite key information which is deemed valuable.

And in most cases, the information has some useful benefits when correctly applied. I genuinely love the concept of teaching; it is, if not the most powerful tool in our world, a tool which renders great use. However, has conventional education taught us to just learn off the lines of knowledge and just accept the information given to us?

Old ways

Knowledge is given to us like facts. Only a few proportion of people ever stop and the question "Could this be done better?" or "Is this really true?" Our education system teaches us that there is only one right answer and anything which opposes it, is bluntly wrong. You'd be considered "stupid" and probably make a fool of yourself if you were to question a truth that was deeply considered to be right in the society we live in now.  

But what if that truth was actually incorrect?

I am not saying that everything that you have been taught is unreliable and that it is incorrect, but I am truly stating that we have, as a generation, have a habit of accepting new information because it has been deemed "true". Thus, there's no urge to be creative...think outside the box and fully examine the information we have been given.

Most of the times, people are too scared to think different. So they never even start to change their perspective but we can't blame them, right?

New ways

Critical thinking and creativity should be encouraged in every possible way, complementing the current education system. The education we receive may be perfect for basic learning but there is always an extent when education, solely, will not get you from place A to B.

Often, many transition to the real world only to realise that education hasn't taught them some major skills they thought they would be. The ability to think contrarian may be overlooked at first but the secrets of the world will be dependent on people changing their way of thinking and re-evaluating previous norms.

As Warren Buffet said, “A contrarian approach is just as foolish as a follow-the-crowd strategy. What’s required is thinking rather than polling.”

The Business of Amazon

The Business of Amazon Edzuki.jpg

A greater understanding of Bezos' world giant

Amazon is by-now a household name and more than a renowned brand. It has shaped the online retail market, providing a diverse choice of products and services. You can buy almost anything on Amazon and choose for it to arrive the next day. Amazon offers a range of services such as Amazon Video, Prime and Amazon Music, the spectrum growing year by year.

It can be estimated that Amazon is reaching a $1 trillion net worth with the share price recently hitting over $1000 as of July 2017. How did Amazon achieve such success? What did Bezos vision with Amazon? There is a very long list of things we can learn from such a giant like Amazon and it is certain that Bezos' creation hasn't even reached its maximum potential.

Long term value

Amazon has also pushed to render useful service for the long term and Bezos has always backed this vision up. By focusing on the long term value of the company when other companies are often chasing profitability within the first several years, Amazon has always kept their aims of pursuing long term sustainability and growth.

Amazon had always been built on long term decisions; for example, the development of Amazon Prime to retain customers for the future. Allowing customers to purchase goods and providing a range of perks and benefits for an annual fee resulted in not only customer retention but also loyalty. Loyalty which meant that customers would stay with Amazon for the future, no matter.

It was the combination of smart thinking and thinking ahead which has left Amazon in a reasonably high position compared to the likes of other retailers. Striving for long term value has always been a definite aim which successful businesses and companies, not only Amazon, have encouraged. A lesson that Amazon has shown is that although the short term may not be favoured, the compromise is enough to achieve a prosperous long term value.

Customer-orientated

It brings a level of difficulty when you try to explain what Amazon has done with its customers. Words can merely express the constant ability for Amazon to keep customers at the top of their agenda. When companies were focused on their competitors, Amazon had only one focus and that was their customers.

Amazon was willing to provide the lowest prices to customers and it didn't care much about anything else. When customers were given an online platform to not only purchase goods seamlessly, but also at their lowest prices, why would anyone shop someone else? Perhaps, there are a few things you can't buy on Amazon but then what about all the things you can buy? The spirit of Amazon was and still is heavily swayed by the customer.

Even Bezos himself has an email address in which customers can email him directly and his team will sort and direct whatever comes into his inbox. So if you do have a problem, query or suggestion, I think Mr. Bezos would be happy if you dropped him a message.

Frugality

Ever heard about those technology companies which offer "excessively" extravagant perks. Jaw-dropping facilities like spas, sports courts and even music rooms. What about irresistible free food and perfectly designed rooms to kick back and chill? It's almost like every company paints that image, especially those Silicon Valley ones. Amazon is different. Amazon has always had the belief of putting the customer first as I have re-iterated quite a few times.

It does this by ensuring that money and resources are well allocated so that it benefits the customer at the end of the day. Being frugal enables Amazon to maximise potential, ensure that they have productive efficiency and well allocate their resources to the best possible use. It not only saves money, but it saves time and it prevents bureaucracy. It's simple and it works.  

The constant strive for innovation that matters

“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” ~ Alfred A. Montapert. If we apply this message to innovation, we can see that innovation can be both good or bad. If you are innovating, it is possible that your new method, idea or way, is not needed. Innovation that matters is what we should all emulate.

If there is no demand for your innovation, it is not an innovation. Amazon has repeatedly and consistently grown because of its strong ability to innovate and tailor those innovations to their demands. Let's use Amazon Prime as an example. A subscription fee giving customers access to a selection of benefits such as free one-day delivery, video and music services.

This still successful and ever growing innovation was based on the idea that there are two groups of people. As Brad Stone put it in his book "The Everything Store", he delivers a message along these lines: "there are two groups of people whose needs are time sensitive and everyone else".

By this, Stone evaluates the idea of time being a major influence on consumer preferences. In more simple language, you have the group of people who want or need their purchases as quick as they can possibly be delivered and then you have the majority of the population; those who can wait a little longer.

Although everyone wants their purchase as soon as possible, only a percentage of the population will pay to do so; hence, creating the distinctive two groups. Amazon has delivered supply to untapped demand in the form of evaluating the behaviour of their customers and tailoring innovation through consumer truths.

Success takes time but that's the only way

With Amazon, there has always be an underlying sense of steady progress. Amazon has shown us that building a successful company is never an overnight success, but in fact a continuous learning process, striving to reach the best possible version and always encouraging innovation in all ways which will enrich the community.

It has been a long road for Amazon since 1994 when Bezos made the life decision of pursuing a goal he had envisioned. We should accept that many businesses and companies have had no choice but to end because of the ever-growing Amazon. However, just imagine a world without Amazon? How boring would it be? Where would you purchase things you wanted or needed?

Perhaps if Amazon never existed, that would almost be an identical "substitute" to Amazon because it's just an online retailer. There are thousands and thousands of online retailers so why is Amazon so different.

Amazon is unique because Bezos capitalised on aspects Amazon was good at. Low prices. Customer trust. Significant innovative paths. Amazon was a combination of a captain and a crew with long term vision and in pursue of enriching the world with value.

Mike Mish Shedlock Discusses Life as an Investment Advisor

Mike Mish Shedlock |  https://www.themaven.net/mishtalk/

Being a registered investment advisor representative for SitkaPacific Capital Management, Mike also runs his own global economics blog where he writes and talks about economics issues and events from an Austrian Economics point of view. Here, he discusses his life as an investment advisor along with advice and tips for economics students. 

THE INTERVIEW

1 | What led your choices to being an investment advisor and how did your passion for economics and business begin?

I have had three careers. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1976 with a degree in civil engineering. I worked two years in the field and hated it. My passion at the time was computers and I realized I got my degree in the wrong major. Back then it was easily possible to switch careers. My free elective was an advanced programming class and that is all it took. I worked over 20 years as a computer systems analyst, mostly for Harris Bank as an assistant VP.

When the Bank of Montreal bought Harris, I did not like the culture changes and left in 1999.  I became a consultant, mainly to banks. Consulting jobs diminished after Y2K, then vanished after 911.

Following the recession, the economy started booming, led by housing. But I could not find a job. When you are out of work for a couple of years it becomes difficult. I started hanging around stock message boards on the Motley Fool and Silicon Investor and quickly had two of the most popular boards on those sites.

Bill McBride better known as blogger CalculatedRisk, was a commenter on my Silicon Investor forum. One day he popped in and announced: “I just started a blog. If anyone wants help starting theirs, just ask.” He created the first template for my blog. We went on to become two of the top three economic bloggers in the country. The third member of the top-three trio was Barry Ritholtz at the Big Picture who also helped me by promoting my blog.

I would not be where I am without the help of McBride, Ritholtz, and a hedge fund manager from the UK whom I believe wishes to remain anonymous.

After putting in 18-hour days writing about the economy for a couple years, ad revenue started coming in.

Sitka Pacific founder Brian McAuley is the final piece of this lengthy story. He emailed me one day and suggested I take the Series 65 exam and join him as an investment advisor at his firm.

I asked him, “why did you pick me?” and he answered that he could tell that I was honest with people.

At the time, I was a firm believer in the property bubble and expected interest rates to crash when the bubble popped. Most people thought inflation was getting out of hand and the Fed would be hiking like mad.

2 | Describe what being a registered investment advisor entails.

First, one needs to be licensed.  There are different licenses for broker-dealers, financial planners, and investment advisors.

For what I wanted to do, I needed to pass what’s known as a series 65 exam. 

The test is not all that hard. After studying for a few weeks, I passed on the first try. But also recall that I had already spent several years on stock boards and writing about the economy.

3 | What do you love most about being an investment advisor and what have been your highlights so far?

Let’s discuss both highlights and lowlights.

I like the interaction with people, but it’s a lot more fun when you are on the right side of the market.

I got the bubble right and the bust right. I was bullish in 2009. But I did not stay bullish long enough. I never thought the Fed (central banks in general), would quickly blow another bubble even bigger than the one that preceded it.

But they did.

There is also a huge difference between being correct on the economy and government bond yields than being correct about the stock market. 

This is the way I look at things: You better admit your mistakes, or someone else is highly likely to admit them for you.

4 | Can you describe a typical workday as an investment advisor and what skills are required the most to be an investment advisor?

I am certain my typical day looks nothing like the typical day of most investment advisors.

For starters, I work out of my house.  If I want to mow the grass or weed the garden in the middle of the afternoon, then I mow the grass or weed the garden.

Second, I am frequently up at 2:00 AM writing and I am seldom up when the US markets first open.

Over the course of a day, most of my time is spent reading the news and writing about the news.

I also spend up to 2 hours a day answering emails. If someone has a question or problem, I try to help, whether or not I think they are potential clients.

Third, I am not in a mad rush to take on new clients. If someone is not a believer in holding gold and gold miners, they are not suitable clients.

I talked to a potential client last week. He felt he was missing the runup and was looking to diversify.

The problem was, we did not offer much diversification. He was in nearly the same holdings as Sitka.

I advised him to hold tight and keep a significant amount of cash to buy a real dip, not these 1% dips that everyone likes to buy these days.

If I was working for a big Wall Street firm I would probably be fired for such advice.

As to your question: What are the most needed skills?

I suggest, honest conversation and a lot of humility. In the industry, those traits are very lacking.

5 | Who are the most important people you follow daily and how significant is it to keep up with current affairs and news?

I follow news and people. I get many story ideas from FinViz. I am also on the right-hand side of their website and proud to be there: https://finviz.com/news.ashx

ZeroHedge is the most popular blogger now, by far. He occasionally reposts some of my articles, and I frequently get ideas from him.

I follow Bloomberg Econoday, primarily to mock it, but sometimes we agree. I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Telegraph.

My Twitter ID is @MishGEA

I follow 72 people and have almost 15,000 followers.

6 | What are some tips for students wishing to go into an economics-related course and then into a career in investment and business?

My number one tip would be to get a good foundation in Austrian economics. The Keynesian, MMT, and Monetarist philosophies are precisely what leads to the big asset bubbles and boom-bust cycles that we have today.

All but Austrian economics has a belief in something for nothing. The average 5th grader understands that it is better to get more for your money than less. The average Keynesian and Monetarist believes the opposite. The MMTers believe government can print money at will with no consequences.

One must be trained to believe such nonsense. Unfortunately, nonsense is precisely what most colleges and universities teach. Many academics have never had a job in the real world.

7 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for Economics students?

Absolutely!

Please see my article Debunking MMT, Keynesianism, Monetarism: Reader asks “What theories do you believe?” Mish Reading List

Follow Mike's blog here: Mike Mish Shedlock

Founder & Director of Music & the Earth International Priya Parrotta | Life as an author

Priya Parrotta | Life as an author

Priya Parrotta | Life as an author

Having a strong passion for music, the environment and writing, Founder & Director of Music & the Earth International Priya Parrotta, reveals her experiences as an author along with advice for aspiring young writers. Having published The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World, Priya has gone off and worked in many well established organisations such as the Red Cross.

THE INTERVIEW

1 | Describe what you do on a daily basis as an author and editor?

I write and edit a range of topics, from environmental sustainability to multiculturalism to interfaith dialogue. To a certain degree, the specifics of what I do vary by topic and by format—for instance, writing or editing a short article is quite a different experience from writing a book. But in all cases, I consider it my job to communicate high-quality ideas to a wide audience.  I know that much of my writing is read by people outside of specific fields and areas of expertise, and that is good! The challenge of making the world’s complexity accessible to people is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.

2 | What made you choose writing and more specifically, where did your passion for climate and global geography originate from?

I’ve always loved to write. As a kid I wrote stories all the time, and even then I loved the way in which the pen can make worlds real. Through writing, what exists in your head or your heart can become something that can touch other people, and that always felt like magic to me. My passion for global geography and the issue of climate change complements the feelings I have about writing. The world is so exhilaratingly provocative and diverse, and since I was a teenager I loved the idea of having a career which, in some way, paid respect to that diversity and helped to support it.

3 | What do you love about being an author and are there any aspects which you love the most on a daily schedule?

Writing, when words come alive...

Writing, when words come alive...

My favourite thing about being an author is that it’s a career that allows you to both convey what you know, and also continue to develop your knowledge in what you don’t. That dance between learning and communicating is one that can go on endlessly, especially if you’ve found subjects that you can remain with for long periods of time. On a daily basis, I enjoy both the flexibility and the space for contemplation that writing allows. I’ve always been a pretty reflective person, who enjoys living at her own rhythm. Being a professional writer allows for both.

4 | How did first approach the idea of combining music and climate together to create Musicandthearth.org?  

What a great question. Musicandtheearth.org—Music & the Earth International, that is—began as an intuition and over time has turned into a concrete initiative. Music is my other lifelong passion, besides writing. I have been singing in choirs and as a soloist since I was six years old, and I spend a lot of my free time searching around for good music, from all over the world, that I have not heard before. Sometimes I listen to and perform music outdoors, and these experiences have been particularly profound. For years I’ve been intrigued by the thought that sound and landscape, music and ecology, climate action and the performing arts, are related. Last year, after my first book was released, I decided to take some time and follow my dream of pursuing those connections. After a few months of improvising, Music & the Earth turned into a richly collaborative project which has earned the support of leaders in the fields that it touches. It’s lots of fun, and it gives me a reason to remain deeply curious about the things in life that, for me, are the most profound.

5 | What is some advice you would give to aspiring students wishing to become an author/writer or take a course related to geography and climate?

I believe that young people who want to be writers, or environmentalists, should receive as much mentorship, funding and support as people who are interested in fields like business or medicine. Unfortunately, though, that is not always the case. There have been times when I’ve struggled a lot, for lack of a support network as I’ve pursued my interwoven interests in writing, music and environmental issues. The advice that I would offer to young people just starting out is to remind yourself that you are not alone in your interests, even if it sometimes feels that way. Whether online or on your school campus or in a library, look out for like-minded voices, and don’t forget their names. They may become part of your support network one day. Also, when it comes to writing, write every day, whether or not you choose to share your work with others. Writing is like any other craft—practice is the key.

You are not alone in your interests.

You are not alone in your interests.

6 | What are some tips for young writers going about their first book?

Find a topic you can really dive into. Be patient with yourself. My book was a collection of essays that I wrote, in supportive environments, over the course of four years. I’m as daunted by the task of writing a book as anyone else. Sometimes working on a subject piece by piece, and then weaving it all together, is the simplest way to go. But the most important thing is finding a subject you love and applying discipline to it. What would you one day like to be an expert in? Find the answer, and move forward in that direction. 

7 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for English or Geography students?

It sounds cliché, but for English, read a combination of “the classics”—the writing that is widely deemed to be beautiful and deep and precise—and authors whose style you love. Enjoying reading is an integral part of growing as a writer. And when it comes to geography and related subjects (like ecology, environmental science, certain branches of ethnomusicology, etc.), don’t be afraid to start with the textbooks. They will give you a strong foundation of knowledge and critical thinking skills that you can build upon later.

There are many books that I love, and many of them have to do with themes that resonate personally with me, such as cross-cultural dialogue, yoga, religion and peace-making, simplicity, globalization, and the beauty of the natural world.

Founder of Pocket Scholar, Stephen Jensen discusses his experience at Harvard University

Stephen Jensen Edzuki.jpg

Having attended a public high school, Stephen Jensen went on the study at Harvard University. Stephen is a true example of when hard work and perseverance combined, can enable you to achieve goals and accomplishments which you have set yourself. It is important to note that setting goals in life is not enough for you to meet them. It is in the dedication and determination which you put which converts your goals into existence. Stephen's desire to study at an elite university had propelled him to achieve spectacular progress. In this interview, he discusses his journey to Harvard University and his advice to younger students.  

Stephen's Website, Pocket Scholar.  Aimed to make science available for everyone and anyone. 

THE INTERVIEW

1 | Where did your passion for the sciences originate from and how did this influence the course you wanted to do at Harvard?

Taking a step back first, I wanted to tell you a little more about my schooling before I got to Harvard for graduate school because I think that it tells a compelling story of how hard work and determination can get you far in life.

I went to a public high school in Portland, Maine and was in honors classes but was a B+ student. Certainly not bad, but this would not cut it for any elite school.  I applied to a variety of colleges and I was waitlisted at my top choices. I was accepted to Merrimack College, which is a small liberal arts college of 1,500 students with a very generous financial aid package. The small class size created a very nurturing environment for me and I really excelled- with a lot of hard work and determination I became a straight A student. I made the decision that I really wanted to do undergraduate research at an elite university and so I applied to transfer after my freshman year. I was rejected but after trying my second year, I was accepted to Tufts University. This taught me for college admissions that transferring is an excellent option if something isn’t a good fit and that perseverance can pay off.

Tufts has a fantastic graduate program in the sciences but is primarily focused on undergraduates. This was ideal for me. I joined a small research group in the chemistry department that only had two graduate students with the professor who started the same year as I did. This gave me a really good opportunity to closely work on research projects that really mattered for the legacy of the group. With some luck and a lot of hard work, I was published 5 times as an undergrad, twice as a first author.

My first article showed, for example, that the same molecule that makes up Styrofoam cups can liquefy the first layer of gold atoms at sub zero temperatures. This is crazy when you think about gold being a liquid at such a cold temperature and we could actually see the liquification occur with this microscope that can see the atoms moving around. To me, that was pretty much the most amazing thing I’d ever seen so I knew then that I really wanted to pursue a PhD in chemistry.

2 | Apart from Harvard University being a very prestigious and well-known university globally, why did you choose to apply to Harvard?

After working on some really exciting projects at Tufts, our group gave a presentation for someone at Harvard who would be my future PhD advisor. She was impressed enough that she encouraged me to apply when I was in my senior year of college. At the time, I also applied to 12 other schools so it was a tough choice for me but ultimately Harvard was the choice that I made because I already had a great connection with a professor at the university and the program also allowed students to do rotations with several groups before making a decision to join a group. For a PhD, once you join a group it is for 5 years so it is important to find a good match and I definitely found the right one for myself.

3 | For top universities such as Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford which have a tough application process, how did you go about knowing how to best approach this application process and what steps did you take in order to achieve a spot at Harvard?

It is important to remember that admissions committees read thousands of essays so it is important to be as succinct as possible while at the same time crafting an interesting story that displays your talents and will make you stand out among other applicants. The actual contents of the story aren’t as important as what they tell about you- i.e. your level of passion, dedication or leadership.

4 | What would be your advice for students who are in the process of applying to universities such as Harvard and those especially, who want to study a science-related course?

The specifics of my advice might be different for undergraduate versus graduate students. For undergraduate, I’d suggest that students should get involved with some activity or project that really stands out and captures their personality. When I was applying for undergraduate schools, I think that was the thing that I was missing but when I applied for graduate programs and had a strong research background, it really stood out to the admissions committees. These kind of projects are easier today than ever with the availability of raspberry pis, 3d printing or web development. For graduate school, it is important to do research as an undergrad.

5 | What did you enjoy the most about your experience at Harvard?

Another important thing to look at when applying to colleges is how the culture feels. There were other universities that I visited where it seemed like the culture was exclusively work focused and I wanted a more well-rounded experience. Harvard has excellent on campus groups, and many public lectures that were fascinating. I remember one lecture series that was focused on the science of cooking where they had famous chefs come every week for two months and give lectures on their craft. These lectures were free and open to the public. Also Harvard had fantastic interdisciplinary programs outside of my degree. One that I was a part of was a program that brought scientists, engineers and policy majors together to learn about climate science and policy.

6 | If you were to turn back time, what do you wish you had known before starting your experience at Harvard?

One thing that all students should keep in mind is that there is life outside academia. Any on campus activity or club you join may form a basis for your future career because becoming a professor is not the only thing that you can do with your life. For me, I stumbled across web app development as a way to keep track of my scientific data and now I am making an entire website called Pocket Scholar that is dedicated to teaching scientific education to undergraduates. This has also lead me to work on projects in healthcare and clean energy and had I not been open to learning outside of my area of study, this would not have been possible. I think that for many areas of life, the most exciting projects are at the intersection of two fields that no one has thought about before. That’s where the real magic happens.

Engineer Xiaohan Zeng Discusses Computer Science

Xiaohan Zeng Edzuki.jpg

After being interviewed and successfully being offered careers at the top five companies in Silicon Valley, including Google and Airbnb, Xiaohan Zeng shares his experiences on life as an engineer, alongside a detailed reading list for students wishing to take a computer science course at university. 

The Interview

1 | Describe what you do on a daily basis as an engineer?

The day usually starts with a team stand meeting, recapping what went on the previous day. Most of the day is spent on coding and code review, with occasional meetings, discussions, and deploys. Coffee breaks are also essential, during which I enjoy talking about books, movies, and other things.

2 | What made you choose a path within technology and computer science?

I think it’s family influence.

When I was a child my parents bought me a popular science book series titled Millions of Whys, which covers topics like math, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, astronomy, medicine, etc. I remember getting up early on the weekends and sitting in my bed relishing them. That book series kindled my interest in how this universe works.

My dad is a university professor teaching computer science, and worked as a programmer himself. He taught me how to use a computer and play games when I was 4. When I was 13, he introduced me to programming. The first algorithm he taught me was bubble sort and it was in Basic. It was the first time I realized there are so much more things you can do on computers other than games.

Although I majored in Chemical Engineering in my undergrad, during my PhD I rediscovered my true passion lies in programming, data science, and machine learning. I focused on statistical modelling for my research and also took courses on computer science such as algorithms, data structures, databases, artificial intelligence, and parallel computing. When I graduated I wanted to continue working in this field, so I started my career as a software engineer.

3 | What do you love about working in the Flux Team at Groupon?

First of all my team is awesome. Being the relatively junior member of the team, I was able to learn a great deal from veterans in the field. Contrary to what many people might think, software engineering is a field where experience matters a lot. Being able to work with and learn from my colleagues is the best thing.

And there are the projects we were building. We work on the machine learning platform, which requires us to combine knowledge on machine learning and system architecting. This means we needed to tap into many fields to be able to come up with a good system. It’s been a hot area and the work is very exciting.

4 | You have recently written an article on Medium describing the interview process at five large companies such as Google and LinkedIn. What did you take away from going through this process and what have you learnt?

There are many things that I learned from this process, but I guess the take-aways are: 1. Prepare well before you go into interviews. 2. Be professional and make an impression. 3. Remain curious and keep learning.

5 | What is some advice you would give to students wishing to study computer-science and later, have a career within the technology industry?

I think the most important thing is: Make sure you really love it.

It’s a field that can be difficult to get into and it’s really difficult to excel since there are too many smart people. Don’t study computer science just because it’s a hot area and it sounds cool to work at Google or Facebook.

Here’s a simple test: when there is a new technology/framework/algorithm that just came out, if your first reaction is excitement and you want to know more about it, then it’s right for you. If you think it’s another burden that you have to go through, then you might want to think again about your career choice.

6 | Do you have a reading list of books or resources that you think would be useful for computer science and engineering students?

I can recommend some book I have read.

In school you would read a lot of textbooks on computer science, but there are some books that you probably won’t use for a class but are really important for your skills as a software engineer. Here are some good ones:

1.      Code Complete

2.      Clean Code

3.      Practices of an Agile Developer

For people interested in machine learning, here are some books that I really like:

1.      The Elements of Statistical Learning

2.      Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning

3.      Deep Learning (by Goodfellow, Bengio, Courville)

Follow Xiaohan on Medium

Read more here: I interviewed at five top companies in Silicon Valley in five days, and luckily got five job offers 

Honorary Associate Professor Larry Baum | Harvard, Research and Science

Larry Baum Edzuki.jpg

Having worked in a variety of educational institutional environments, Larry Baum is an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong. Having extensive experience in scientific research, Larry speaks to us about his time at Harvard, his profession as an educator and advice for students willing to apply for a science-related course at university. 

The Interview

1 | Describe what being an Honorary Associate Professor consists of.

It’s an honorary title which university departments often give to thank people for their service, such as research collaboration with department members or occasional teaching for the department. It’s not a paid job, and the actual work one does could vary tremendously. I arrived at the position by becoming an associate professor but then, after not gaining tenure, finding a job teaching general education courses at another university. The department at the other university gave me the Honorary Associate Professor title. How I actually spend my time is teaching, with occasional collaboration on research projects I had started earlier.

2 | What led your choices into becoming an Honorary Associate Professor and what grew your passion for Chemistry and Physics?

I studied physics because I wanted to learn something about how the universe works. I like getting at the root of things, and physics is the foundation of everything else. However, although I’d liked math, I had trouble understanding linear algebra freshman year at university, and since math is essential for physics, I decided I better switch fields. I eventually chose neuroscience to learn how we think. By then, I’d accumulated credits in physics courses, and a degree in Chemistry and Physics was the easiest way to graduate. (It wasn’t a double major: more like half and half.)

In graduate school, I studied neuroscience. I soon realized that it would take decades to figure out how the brain works, but I wanted quicker results. Thus I chose to study a brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, because it was common, severe, and becoming more common as life expectancy rose. I’ve been studying it and other brain diseases since then.

3 | How did you find the experience of studying at Harvard like? What can you tell us about the application process and what led to your decision of wanting to go to Harvard?

Harvard remains a prestigious name around the globe | Source:  Flickr   Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Harvard remains a prestigious name around the globe | Source: Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Harvard is famous, but I found the teaching quality mixed. Some teachers were great, some were OK: not too surprising since professors are chosen for their ability in research, not teaching, and someone good in research may or may not be a good teacher. I guess that teachers at any university could give you a good education. And if you’re very motivated and disciplined, you could educate yourself at a library or online.

The best thing about Harvard was the other students. They were smart and interesting and came from around the world. Getting to know them made my time at university special. I had a chance to graduate in three years because of Advanced Placement credits, but I chose to stay a fourth year because I enjoyed it so much.

As far as I remember (it was decades ago), the application required a transcript of high school grades, standardized tests, a form, and an interview. I visited campuses of several universities and liked Harvard partly because it happened to be a beautiful Spring day, with students out in their shorts and t-shirts playing Frisbee on the lawn, and because the campus is in a semi-urban environment with interesting restaurants, shops, and buskers playing music on the sidewalks. Many universities offer equally-good educations, so I decided based on the environment. But when Winter came, I realized how cold snow could be! Winters were a little uncomfortable to me since I grew up in sunny Los Angeles.

4 | What advice would you give to students wanting to not only take a science-related course at university but also wishing to apply for American universities such as Harvard?

There’s much written about how science jobs are growing and that we need to train more scientists. But jobs in basic research are scarce. A study about a decade ago of neuroscience PhD graduates found that fewer than a quarter became professors, and many left science altogether. If you aim for a job in scientific research, you have better odds of achieving your goal than someone aiming to be a professional athlete or actor, but the odds are still against you.

Look at the job market before choosing a career. Ask people working in that field who are 10 or 20 years older than you to tell you their career path and to give you an overview of job prospects. If possible, also ask people who failed to keep working in that field, because if you only ask people who were able to stay, you’ll get a positively-skewed impression. And if you only rely on advice from leaders in the field (such as the people who tend to write articles saying we desperately need to train more scientists), you’ll tend to get an even more positively slanted view because their personal experiences were successful.

Volunteer to work in your chosen field for a short time to get a taste of the daily routine. Do you like working in a lab, reading papers, writing papers and grant applications, collaborating with colleagues, and troubleshooting experiments that keep failing? While there, take every opportunity to ask people about their careers.

If you want to apply to American universities, why not? Try. I don’t think the university you choose affects the quality of your education much. You can probably get a pretty good education at most universities. It depends more on what you do to learn than on what the school does to teach.

5 | What do you think is the greatest discovery within the field of science and why do you think so?

Vaccines can be said to be one of the major discoveries within the biological world, alongside DNA.

Vaccines can be said to be one of the major discoveries within the biological world, alongside DNA.

Vaccines. They’ve saved many millions of lives. They’ve eliminated a major killer, smallpox, and may soon eliminate polio. Now they’re starting to reduce the risk for cervical cancer and to be studied to treat cancer. There’s accumulating evidence that infections contribute to brain diseases, thus vaccines may someday prevent some of those.

6 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for Science students?

No, I can’t think of books I’ve read that would be particularly useful for science students, though I’m sure there are many. I wish I’d read more biographies, of both famous and ordinary people, to learn about their career ups and downs, as well as the ups and downs of their personal lives. When my experiments didn’t work, I felt like a failure compared to scientists and their ground-breaking experiments which I’d read in textbooks. It took a while to realize that most experiments either fail or produce results that aren’t exciting, but that textbooks of course only include the most important and successful results.

Reading the unedited experiences of scientists, including those who weren’t famous, should give a more balanced perspective. Reading biographies of people outside science may be useful, too, in learning what people experience and how they behave, which is important in life in general and in science in particular because science is not solitary. It requires extensive cooperation in administration, training, proposing projects, and performing experiments.

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Essie Fox, author of The Last Days of Leda Grey, tells us more about life as an author

Essie Fox discusses her experiences as an author, after writing three beautifully crafted Victorian novels.

Essie Fox discusses her experiences as an author, after writing three beautifully crafted Victorian novels.

Essie Fox was born and raised in Herefordshire. She studied English Literature at Sheffield University, going on to work in London, first in the world of publishing and then as a freelance artist -  eventually becoming a writer. Now published by Orion, Essie has been featured on Channel 4’s Book Club, has been shortlisted for the National Book Awards, and her debut The Somnambulist has been optioned for film/TV. Essie often speaks at festivals, has written articles for the national press, and has lectured at the V&A, as well as the National Gallery. Her latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey was featured as The Times Historical Book of the Month.

For more information: www.essiefox.co.uk

Twitter: @essiefox

Facebook: Essie Fox Author

THE INTERVIEW

1 | Describe what you do on a daily basis as a writer and a historical blogger?

Writing fiction takes up most of my day. I wish I could say that I work in a grand library or café as so many writers do. In fact, I simply wake, go downstairs for a cup of coffee, and then return to bed to work - until around about lunchtime, when I take a few hours off for lunch or meeting friends. The coffee is quite a ritual, with freshly ground beans and using a press, but that activity tends to be the buffer zone between sleeping, and the dream-like trance that writing fiction often feels like to me.

I don’t plan out novels in advance. During the first draft stage my mind is continually holding the details of the characters and plot. With every new day I must decide what each upcoming chapter will contain. So, this is a concentrated creative time during which I try to have as little distraction as possible.

When researching my novels I often discover fascinating details that I may not use in the story itself, but which I then decide to use as material for blog posts. This work I tend to do in the evenings, writing factual historical articles, or reviewing novels I’ve read and loved.  In addition to this, I’ll then take time to post the new blog material on social media - and more often than not what I intend to be no more than an hour drags out to be even longer, because of responding to reader comments, or replying to Tweets. But, as writing is such a solitary process I cherish these interactions. It’s really something special to ‘meet’ up with people who share your professional passions.

2 | What made you choose writing and more specifically, where did your passion for the Gothic Victorian era come from?

I’ve always loved to read - and I think reading makes a writer.  Also, as a child I always had a story going round in my mind. I remember going to bed at night and plotting out the next ‘episodes’ until I drifted off to sleep. I never considered writing them down ... it was just ‘what I did’ to amuse myself.

“Luminous … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling.”   The Times

“Luminous … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling.” The Times

When I went to university and read English Literature one of the modules on the course was the Victorian novel. This immersion in the genre was something I came to relish, and as time went by I always looked out for any neo-Victorian novels that might be newly published with a sense of great excitement.

I’m not sure when I suddenly realised that I wanted to write one of my own, but I do recall reading Jane Harris’ The Observationsand Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes at The Museum  (one Victorian, and one set in the time when I myself was growing up, with many references that rang a chord. There was something about the voices, the settings, the twists, the atmospheres of the books that made me long to create my own ‘new world’.

Why set it in the Victorian era? Well, there was that passion I mentioned before for reading books set in that particular time, with all of its vision and adventure, it’s new invention - and moral discrepancies. I also wanted to explore some of the history from my own childhood. So, I combined the two together ... writing The Somnambulist, which draws on experiences from my teenage years when I worked as a cleaner in a large Herefordshire country house; a house surrounded by mysterious woodlands which I’d often walked through as a child. I also used my later experience of living in London, using places I’d visited and loved, such as Wilton’s Music Hall. I tried to recapture the glory and grit that gave such a place its character.

3 | What do you love about being an author and are there any aspects which you love the most on a daily schedule?

I am a solitary person by nature. I really don’t mind if I don’t talk to another living soul for days on end. That suits the writing life very well, giving me ample time and space to imagine entirely alternative worlds. Once a novel is three or four chapters in, there’s nothing I like better than to totally immerse myself and see the plot developing, and to get to know my fictional characters.

I enjoy the freedom of my writing life - being able to break off whenever I want to catch up with real life neglected friends, or to walk local woodlands and riverbanks. I find that walking actually helps to move a plot on inside my head. It might look as if I’m swanning around, doing nothing, but my brain could be fizzing with new ideas.  

4 | The complementary subjects of History and English literature go hand in hand as can be seen by your thought-provoking and compelling works. What led to your choice of incorporating History into writing?

Writers of fiction are not historians and the prime motive is to tell a story. However, if you write in a particular historical era there’s obviously a certain amount of research to be done. How much or how little depends on your style. Sometimes a novel is sparser, with a more ‘internal’ or psychological construction, so the historical elements are there to add authenticity, but are selected with restraint. At other times the descriptions are as much a part of the story as the characters and plot. Even then it is important not to be too heavy-handed or to tip the balance away from the true essence of the story-line. In either case you really need to know your era and subject well. There’s nothing worse than badly researched fiction. Someone will always spot mistakes and pull you up on them. And the more you research the less likely you are to use clichés in your writing style.

“ The glee with which Fox approaches her material is infectious. ”  The   Guardian

The glee with which Fox approaches her material is infectious.” The Guardian

5 | What advice would you give to aspiring students wishing to embark on an English related career such as being an author or a journalist?

I’m less qualified to advise on journalism at this point in time, but for any aspiring writers I would again suggest reading as much as possible - the very best in the genre you’re particularly interested in, but well beyond that area as well. Read the classics and novels that have stood the test of time. You will learn so much about themes, structure, plot, and voice.

Build up a social media presence with fellow writers, agents, and publishers. Be prepared to engage and share news and events. Go to literary evenings. Meet other people in the industry. Listen, watch, and learn.

Some writers have taken the route of new book reviewing to engage with the public (and publishing houses) before they write, or submit their own novel. This is another way to build an online presence. But, I feel it’s important to be aware that reviewing and blogging can take up huge amounts of time. Balance is the key.

Which leads to my final advice - to write, write, and write again. When you’ve completed a first draft that’s not the end. It’s barely the beginning. Go through it again, and again, until you feel sure there is not one single thing you could change. Only at that point should you be submitting your work to a trusted reader, or an agent, or publisher. Some writers show their work to several beta readers, but I would guard against too many different readers at this point. We all have different tastes and opinions, and the danger is that you may try to apply every new view to your manuscript, resulting in neutered or muddled work. Take advice. Listen. But, also trust your own instincts.

6 What tips for young writers going about their first book/novel and what preparation do you do (if you do) when starting a new piece?

Much of my answer to question 5 is relevant here. But, moving on from that, if the novel is contemporary and based on situations you have direct experience of, then you can jump straight in. But only after you’ve really thought long and hard about the actual plot, its themes and its settings. You must consider your characters carefully too, their motivations, their surroundings; their intentions and reasons for actions.

If the novel is historical and conveying themes or experiences of which you only know a little, then you need to start reading widely, also visit museums and exhibitions, and go along to any talks with relevance to your subject matter. Basically, you need to learn as much as you possibly can to give your novel authenticity. Only when you feel you know the subject matter inside out should you start to write your story. And, even then, you should be prepared to stop here and there to do more research as the story progresses and deepens - often in ways you may not have considered when you started out. Novels tend to develop organically, taking on lives of their own.

So, regarding preparation - first of all comes the inspiration; that sudden ‘Eureka’ moment when you feel: ‘yes! I’ve had this brilliant idea which will make a fantastic novel!’ Sounds a little too optimistic? Well, if you’re not thinking about it that way, if you’re remotely uncertain or luke-warm at this point, then it probably isn’t the novel that you should be thinking of writing. You’ll have ample opportunity during the writing process when you’ll be thinking ‘this is total rubbish!’ or ‘Why did I ever start this book?’, because writing a novel is a little bit like falling in and out of love, several times with the same person. If the initial love isn’t strong enough you’ll probably never reach the end of it - or, you will but the story will lack all heart. Readers and publishers will sense that.

When does the Eureka moment come? Well, Every book I’ve written has started with visual inspiration. In the case of my first, The Somnambulist, it was a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a woman walking in her sleep, and also a visit to Wilton’s music hall, when the imagery and venue of my opening scene both came together in my mind. With the latest, The Last Days of Leda Grey, it has been the same. First, quite by chance, I noticed an old black and white print of an actress, dating back to the era of silent film in a junk shop in the Brighton Lanes. From that point on I was inspired to find out more about Edwardian film. Again, by chance, I realised that Brighton and Hove had a very rich part to play in the history of early film, which is why I then decided to set my story there, but to create an imaginary to actress.

Before I began to write a word I visited the Brighton Museum, and the BFI Archives in Berkhamstead. I went to the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Cinema Musuem, both in London. I watched as many early films made in the era as possible, some of which are quite astonishing - though, sadly, most of the films made then have now been permanently lost, due to the medium of celluloid which ages and is volatile: a fact I then went on to use as a useful ploy in my novel’s plot.

7 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for English or History students?

I must confess that I have never used any ‘How To Write’ books, preferring to read as widely as possible. However, I know that many writer friends have found Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft to be invaluable. Others have recommended Robert McKee’s advice, and I believe he also gives regular lectures and courses in London. There is an excellent blog I would recommend here with just about everything needed in the Writer’s Toolkit and that is Emma Darwin’s This Itch of Writing, with articles going back over years and with an excellent search facility for specific concerns.